The Proof in Dad’s Pudding

I hate our refrigerator. It’s one of those high end stainless steel, French door monstrosities in which you can find nothing. So, last night, we bought an “overflow” fridge for the garage. First world problems, I know.

Among the “things” I hadn’t noticed in the last several months was a Hunts Snack Pack Butterscotch pudding cup. It had been in the lunch box my dad packed the last day he went to work…the lunchbox he’d obsessed about when he was in the hospital because he didn’t want the food to go bad. After he died, I unpacked his lunchbox and put that butterscotch pudding (my favorite) in the bottom drawer of my fridge. The expiration date was more than a year away (nod to preservatives) and I figured I’d eat it eventually. I just let it sit there, though, as a reminder of him for more than a year. This morning, I looked at it again: “Best by 14 JUL 07.” July 7, 2014. His 69th birthday.

I stood there holding it as the fridge  wafted cold air in my face, beeping periodically as if to say, “close me.” This appliance I hated had held a memory in the form of a pudding cup for almost 15 months and forced me to slow down and remember a man whose lunch was never complete without dessert.

There’s a certain shift when we lose a parent; it becomes life-altering when you lose the second. But mourning them and letting them go are two very different things.

There’s a certain “growing up” that happens when you begin to let your parents go. So many months since the death of my father, I’m still not sure I’m ready to “let go.”

Rationally, I know that it doesn’t mean so much. It doesn’t make them anymore—or less—gone.

The death of the last parent tortures one with the mystery of living. What did it all mean? Was there any meaning at all? Yeah, I’ve asked those questions more times than I care to admit.

As years pass, the memories and losses weave their way into the fabric of our lives. We adjust, gracefully or not, to the “elder” role, on this side of heaven.  Each of us does it in our own way, but unless we die before our parents, none of us escapes it.

Almost 12 years after my mother’s death and 15 months after my dad’s, the hardest part is still ahead of me— to finally accept those empty chairs that will never be filled, to figure out how to create new traditions to match the old.  

Oh, the empty chairs, the ones in which I am startled again and again by their absence. These are rivaled by the moments with their families…occasions which offer me a glimpse into how they might’ve aged if they’d been granted length of years. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to have a moment where I felt like they were here again, offering advice when I needed it the most. People in their 30s take for granted their parents; I’m sure of it. Experiencing some kind of life-security, it’s easy not to need an older generation guiding and prodding you along—unless they’re not here.

At the time of my mother’s death, I still had not reached the age she was when she had given birth to me. Those years–between 24 and 33–were a kind of limbo for me. The life I had constructed so carefully (or carelessly) seemed relatively intact around me. I had had many great life experiences, even met the person I’d marry. Despite all this, I felt dreadfully adrift.

When Dad died unexpectedly in April, my life was tossed into a new kind of limbo. It felt as if I had woken up one morning and didn’t know whose life I was in. The things I valued most seemed dangerously close to disintegrating even as they remain constant by outward observations. Things look OK. Everything must be OK. Except, they’re not always okay. Sometimes I struggle to remember where I’ve been, wonder why our family couldn’t have been intact a little longer, always there is the struggle to understand where I’m going, when, why and how I’m going to get there. Most of my peers have lived a very logical chronology up to now. They went to college, they got married, they had kids, and they’ve begun to think about their soon-to-be aging parents and perhaps a fleeting thought about their own distant mortality. For my sister and me, it sometimes seems that we put our 20s on hold to process our mother’s passing; now, it seems that we are stuck in our mid-30s processing our father’s.

Life is so short. It’s unfair. It’s unpredictable. It’s hard to understand the point of it all. For all our lives we struggle to find our place only to ultimately learn that the place we’re searching for isn’t here at all. While I can normally rattle off the various talking points related to the meaning of life, other days, I just don’t know if they’re all true. When I feel this way, I am further exasperated by the fact that there is SO much meaning in life. There is so much joy. There is so much love amidst those things that test our hearts’ strength and tenacity.

And sometimes, as crazy as it sounds, those are the very things that make life seem so trying—that there is so much beauty in the world that it’s often overwhelming—the magnificence of a sunset that seems to have spilled fire all over the horizon; the majesty and grandness of the ocean and the smallness we feel at its shores; the innocence of a child or a beloved fur kid; the touch of a loving wife; the longing to leave a legacy that will transcend our brief time here.

Often we think, “I’ll do this or that later, when the debt is paid off, when a great job offer comes along, after the holidays, sometime next year.” One is left to wonder, do things happen the way they’re supposed to happen or because we were just too lazy to turn the tide, to make our own destiny? Is everything chance? Or do we have the power to change the things in our lives that need changing before it’s too late? How many people leave this earth without ever fulfilling their purpose? I ask these things like there are answers to be had or given. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s ever searched for them.

I suppose it will all make sense someday, but it doesn’t today.

Let us all hope that, in the words of Jefferson,  there are indeed angels in the whirlwind, guiding this storm.

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